The night before I went to Raleigh, North Carolina (for a Center for Teaching Quality board meeting), I went to my barbershop, where the guys played Malcolm X (the Spike Lee joint). I watch this movie almost annually, just to remind myself of the way this country still throws around the idea of an American dream, but always conveniently bury dissenters either physically or out of the zeitgeist in short order. The more promising the revolution, the quicker the silencing takes place.
Fast forward to today, where the definition of leadership in racially-marginalized communities have been diluted to a few pillars: MLK, Rosa, and Malcolm X. We can throw in Cesar Chavez for good measure, but the conversation doesn’t go too far from that. While many people yearn for those men as their leaders, their perception of what it takes to lead a people comes from a contrived martyrdom or, worse still, a legion of people who pick apart elements from men from the past and try to “update” the style in present-day form.
In other words, we got lots of copies, each of them charismatic as the next, but with little to no substance.
Except for the occasional Van Jones or NAACP President Ben Jealous, what we deem as black leadership may have the look of advocacy and critical thought, yet it lacks the people’s edge. Eddie S. Glaude explains:
All too often what stands in for the black intellectual these days are folks who can spin a phrase and offer a soundbite. The idea of the intellectual who reads widely and deeply and who critically engages the complexity of our times has been supplanted by the fast-talking “black Ph.D. pundit” who strives to be on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. This same pundit has found new career opportunities within universities and colleges by thinking about black people in ways that conform to the current liberal consensus about racial matters.
Ah. Well, as often as people get mesmerized by the speeches and pizzazz, they often allow these people to hurt our communities’ voice in the name of getting on mainstream media. Instead, I prefer we look at our leaders’ best asset: the ability to stand next to the next man and teach him how to lead as well, inspire them to be their better selves.
Malcolm did that. I’m usually not one to write on someone’s passing day, but I just had to put that out there.
Moments like this make me want to ask, “Who ASKED you?!”
Some of my frustration lately stems from the perception that making something look easy equates to the task actually being easy.
Especially as it pertains to the site and everything surrounding it. The design, the content, the schedule, the photos, and the accompanying branding come together as pieces to a greater vision, one that hopefully pushes others to also seek success by any means necessary (with the people I represent in mind, of course).
In this plan, however, I always have to anticipate the negative feedback, the hostilities of working in environments where social media is seen as a venue for negative exposure or as a potential threat. As many opportunities as I’ve been afforded in this space, I get that other people prefer I not succeed, that I stay within my space as a teacher, as if teachers, like the children they taught, should be seen and not heard.
Then I have to wonder if it’s a side effect of my race, and people’s own perceptions of what I bring to the table with it.
Here are three things you don’t say to a male educator of color (or any man of color, really):
“You don’t always come to school early.”
“You already have a leg up because you’re a man of color.”
“You look like you need something else to do.”
Let’s forget for a second that I get to school at around 7:15am on average when the school bell rings at 8am. The perception that, as a Black man, I get to work late already tells me more about you than it does about me. You already perceive us as a problem to fix, a glob to mold, or a stereotype to break. As far as I can tell, we’re none of those.
Anytime we get to work early, it’s usually to finish planning lessons, grade student work, or simply get our minds and hearts ready for the day. If we look like we’re not working, chances are that we’re actually working, and you’ve already perceived us as lazy or incompetent. When passionate teachers have a prep, they usually use it to prepare for the next class, to tweak a lesson, or dot all the i’s before they talk to their next period class. That’s how it works.
Furthermore, let us let everyone in on a secret: some of us have learned to distrust anyone who want someone else to communicate more often, especially in non-family situations. The term “snitches get stitches” didn’t come from nowhere, so to speak. Honesty has a price far too high to bear in financial times like these. Also, when people of color jump into the workforce, we have to read a few extra articles about trusting others, using a certain voice, or truncating names for us to fit in or stand out less.
Whether people realize it or not, their perceptions of us keep us from doing the best job possible, like a 21st century glass ceiling.
You’re right, though. Maybe a man of color has a slight advantage in terms of relating to children who identify with us or look like us in the classroom, but that’s never (EVER) a given. Some men of color might deserve the ire of others, especially those who hop on national news espousing views of those who seek to hurt our communities. The men I associate with have to work twice as hard just to stay on top of things.
For, while our jobs with our “customers” remains the same as the next person, the perception against us means we have to do that work twice: once to do it right, twice to disprove the doubters. Assuming responsibility only works when both parties reflect on their own biases.
Hope that helps.
Jose, who realizes this could also apply to women of color, but I prefer a woman of color speak to this …
On Saturday, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous spoke to the Netroots Nation crowd around one of the organization’s pivotal efforts: ending New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy [and preventing said policy from spreading to other major cities]. His impassioned speech made me tap my feet, blanking out to the sounds of an aggression unaddressed by the larger progressive communities. While he spoke, I noticed two halves of my table, one who listened intently on what Jealous had delivered to a mostly Caucasian, Democratic crowd and the other faction a set of people who would scream bloody murder if such a policy affected their clique, but it didn’t, so they ignored it.
Alas, for so many of us, the stop-and-frisk policy aligns with the general dispassion towards the condition of others locally except when directly affected. In a town replete with activists and do-gooders, young Black and Latino men getting stopped and frisked by police officers on the basis of their looks follows the narrative of certain populations somehow deserving such treatment. In this narrative, young men of color commit the most crime, do the most harm to society, put the biggest burden on their general populace, so when they do get stopped randomly for no apparent reason, that helps reduce crimes that haven’t been committed yet.
In this narrative, we get to perpetuate the stereotype of this specific group as local terrorists. And it’s wrong.
As a native of NYC, I can say I’ve never been stopped and frisk. Unfortunately, that makes me the exception that proves the rule. The statistics lie so heavily against people that look like me that I often wonder how I avoided such a fate. Maybe a cab finally came down for me. Maybe I didn’t stop at my favorite bar that one night. Maybe I had on my lucky shoes the few times it could have happened to me. It’s happened to friends who I had appointments with that day or it had just happened to. On their way to school, back from school, to their girlfriend’s house, on their way to church, to their mother’s house.
Stop and frisk doesn’t just emasculate the (very often) innocent; it continues the legacy of this specific group as second-class citizens. How do we expect citizens of this country to believe in this country’s values when we don’t offer the same rights and liberties to all of them? As a matter of fact, we can’t seek peace across the Atlantic when we can’t stop the war happening across the street.
As a young father of color, I now have the additional responsibility of teaching my son how to prepare for the cops. Much the way I have to advocate for improved curriculum and de-escalation of testing in our public schools, I must advocate for improved relationships and de-escalation of aggression on behalf of the NYPD. A big step towards that is by ending stop-and-frisk.
If you’re in my table listening to this, no longer can you claim naivete. We need you to end it, too.
Jose, who needs another change of venue …
p.s. – In case you need information, my colleague Marvin Bing, Northeast Regional Director of the NAACP and a Harlem native, shared this with me, so I’m hoping you’ll read up, too.
What “Stop and Frisk” Means: The situation in which a police officer who is suspicious of an individual detains the person and runs his hands lightly over the suspect’s outer garments to determine if the person is carrying a concealed weapon.
One of the most controversial police procedures is the stop and frisk search. This type of limited search occurs when police confront a suspicious person in an effort to prevent a crime from taking place. The police frisk (pat down) the person for weapons and question the person.
A stop is different from an arrest. An arrest is a lengthy process in which the suspect is taken to the police station and booked, whereas a stop involves only a temporary interference with a person’s liberty. If the officer uncovers further evidence during the frisk, the stop may lead to an actual arrest, but if no further evidence is found, the person is released.
Unlike a full search, a frisk is generally limited to a patting down of the outer clothing. If the officer feels what seems to be a weapon, the officer may then reach inside the person’s clothing. If no weapon is felt, the search may not intrude further than the outer clothing.
NAACP President on why we are standing against Stop and Frisk
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My name is Jose Luis Vilson, teacher, writer, public speaker, activist, Syracuse University and City College grad, poet, hip-hop enthusiast, and (certainly not least) father. I've been featured at CNN, Huffington Post, Education Week, Scholastic, TEDx, and GOOD Magazine. For more, click here.